Almost every day for the past month, coach Ed Orgeron analyzed practice grades given to LSU’s linebackers. He noticed 67 percent by multiple players’ names, but as Orgeron went down the list, he consistently saw 100 percent next to Damone Clark.
Throughout preseason practice, Clark impressed LSU with his physicality — safety Grant Delpit compared his strength to an ox — and intelligence. Clark began his sophomore year third on the depth chart, but when LSU beat Georgia Southern 55-3 in its season opener Saturday night, Clark received his first career start.
“You see how he looked, huh?” outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson said, smiling wide. “He looked good!”
Starting surprised Clark. LSU listed him as a backup to Michael Divinity on its initial depth chart earlier this week, and when the team held its pregame routine inside Tiger Stadium, Divinity warmed up with the first team. But Divinity did not play.
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“We handle all those things in-house,” Orgeron said. Clark said Divinity had a “minor” injury.
With Divinity sidelined, Clark found out he would start about an hour before kickoff. His body filled with nerves. His freshman year, he had played special teams and followed around Butkus Award winner Devin White in the weight room, trying to create playing time. He had made one tackle.
Clark entered preseason camp in a position battle with juniors Jacob Phillips and Patrick Queen. Over the last month, Clark rose up the depth chart.
It was a familiar question, an oh-so familiar question in a week leading up to the first LSU football game of the season.
“I'm telling you now, Damone Clark is a guy you've got to watch,” Orgeron said last week. “He's coming.”
After LSU scored on its first possession Saturday, Clark trotted onto the field for the Tigers’ first defensive snap. Divinity hung back. The senior who moved from outside linebacker this offseason spent the rest of the night roaming the sideline in full pads. He never wore — or held — his helmet.
Near the end of the first half, Divinity took a few steps onto the field. He extended his arms, congratulating his teammates as they jogged toward the sideline after a third-down stop. LSU expected him to replace White’s vocal leadership. Though he did not play, Divinity often asked his teammates what they did. He pressed them to improve.
LSU couldn't have started the 2019 season much better, demolishing Georgia Southern, 55-3, behind an unforgiving defense and a slick, revamped…
“I applaud him for that,” said Phillips, who recorded a team-high 10 tackles.
Clark played well in his first start. On the final play of the first half, Clark burst through the line of scrimmage and tackled Georgia Southern running back Logan Wright for no gain. Later, he pressured Georgia Southern quarterback Justin Tomlin on a third-down pass, forcing an incompletion. He finished with nine tackles.
Clark and Phillips played deep into the second half of the blowout, neither exiting for good until Georgia Southern’s final drive. Queen provided occasional relief.
Without Divinity, Clark and Phillips led LSU’s defense to a dominant performance. The Tigers held Georgia Southern and its shotgun triple option to seven yards in the first quarter. The Eagles never found a rhythm. They finished with fewer than 100 total yards.
When it ended, Clark walked into the middle of the field with the rest of LSU's team. He felt proud of his performance. He rolled his jersey up his chest as his first start drifted behind him, his nerves replaced by confidence.
Said Orgeron: "I think he's going to be a tremendous LSU linebacker."